Tribute to Kevin Boyle

Internationally respected human rights lawyer and academic Kevin Boyle died on 25 December, 2010. Stuart Weir pays tribute to a generous man and dedicated advocate of reform.
Stuart Weir
4 January 2011

Kevin Boyle, who has died of cancer just as he was retiring heaped with honours, belonged to a remarkably small academic elite. He was one of the few true scholars who have committed themselves to the practical expression of their talents and time in what was in his case a genuinely ‘big society’.  Kevin was a human rights scholar and barrister who campaigned for civil rights in Northern Ireland in the 1960s at the beginning of his academic career at Queen’s, Belfast; became an observer for Amnesty International in SouthAfrica and elsewhere; took significant cases of the torture and murder of Kurdish citizens against the Turkish authorities before the European Court of Human Rights, working closely with  Francoise Hampson, his colleague at Essex University; and joined Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, as her adviser and speech-writer.

Kevin’s colleague at Essex, Nigel Rodley, has written a fuller obituary in the Guardian. In this short tribute I should like to draw attention to Kevin’s generosity and openness to those of us who work in civil society organisations like the People’s Democracy group in Northern Ireland, the Kurdish Human Rights Project, Article 19 and Democratic Audit. I know from first-hand experience how hard he worked within these organisations and the anxieties he felt on their behalf.

Kevin gave whole-hearted assistance to Charter 88, when in its early days Anthony Barnett and I asked him to frame evidence on the state of civil and political rights in the UK for submission to the UN Committee on Civil and Political Rights in New York. That association led to his active participation in founding Democratic Audit in 1990 as a joint proposal to the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust from Charter 88 and the Human Rights Centre, at Essex, where Kevin was then director. Democratic Audit - the brain child of Trevor Smith - does just that: it audits the quality of democracy and human rights. Together Kevin and I recruited David Beetham as a key participant and his auditing methodology is now in use not only in the UK but in some two dozen countries around the world. Kevin took this new research body under his care at the Human Rights Centre, serving as joint director for two years and then taking on an editorial brief.  He had a life-long interest in economic, social and cultural rights which bore fruit when several of his former students and colleagues contributed to Unequal Britain: a human rights route to social justice, a joint Human Rights Centre/Democratic Audit volume on their uncertain and neglected place in the UK.

Kevin was always anxious about spreading himself too thin and neglecting his academic work in the process.  I can understand why.  He had much to contribute academically. But I have met so many people who were students of his, or who worked with him in one or another of his ports of call, who remember a generous teacher, mentor and colleague. They are an important part of his contribution to human rights thinking and activity around the world.  On this occasion, the clichéd tribute is very true: Kevin will be sorely missed.

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